This is the third of a three part series on the making of the Bible. If you haven’t listened to the other two episodes, I recommend listening to those first.
This last episode is about the manuscript of the New Testament- which is really different than the Old Testament. The history of manuscript discovery is different and so fascinating. In the second half of this lecture, we talk about the process and the dynamics at work in collecting the books of the bible into what bible nerds call “The Canon”.
Speaker in the audio file:
Tim: Hey everybody! I’m Tim Mackie, and this is my podcast, Exploring My
Strange Bible. I am a card-carrying, Bible, history, and language nerd who thinks
that Jesus of Nazareth is utterly amazing and worth following with everything
that you have.
On this Podcast, I’m putting together the last ten years’ worth of lectures, and
sermons where I’ve been exploring this strange, and wonderful story of the Bible
and how it invites us into the mission of Jesus and the journey of faith. And I
hope this can be helpful for you too.
I also helped start this thing called, The Bible Project. We make animated videos,
and podcasts about all kinds of topics on Bible, and Theology. You can find those
resources at thebibleproject.com.
With all that said, let’s dive into the episode for this week.
Alright. This is the third of a three-part series on the Making of the Bible. I did
this series of lectures all in one night. It was a Friday night event at a church that I
worked at for a number of years. It was super fun to pack it all in together. But
man, what a firehose. Here at least on this podcast you get it in three different
This last episode is about the manuscript history of the New Testament which is
really different than that of the Old Testament. Just the way that the manuscripts
spread, the amount of manuscripts, and so on. And then also the history of
manuscript discoveries, and the history of our English translations beginning back
before King James but the effect of the King James and the modern debates
about English translations so, so fascinating. We’ll talk about that manuscript
history of the New Testament.
And then the second half of this lecture is going to talk about the process and
the dynamics at work in the collection of the books of the Bible into holes, what
Bible nerds call the canon, with one n. C-a-n-o-n. Not like pirate cannons. But a
canon meaning a collection. A measured collection. So how did collection
process of the Biblical books take place? Again, always give an overview of that.
Hopefully this whole lecture series has been giving you some new categories to
think about. Where the Bible came from and what it is and what the implications
that are, we’ll just keep exploring that in different series that we do in the future
on this podcast. But hope this one is helpful. Here we go.
This will be kind of familiar how we’re tracing the other timeline here. Similar to
what we did for the Hebrew Bible and there’s a couple of things that make the
transmission story of the New Testament distinct from the Hebrew Bible though
and that is this concept here. And if you read any, again I’ve given to you
recommended readings some of which are on the table at the end of the New
Testament handout and they’ll develop this idea. So the Jesus movement, read
through the Book of Acts and by end of the Book of Acts, it’s gone from a 120
people in an upper room in Jerusalem to thousands of people, Jews and non-
Jews all over ancient world spreading as far as Rome, right? That’s where the
Book of Acts ends. And you know, Paul is in Rome, in house arrest but living in a
nice place with a patio and he’s talking about Jesus freely to people.
And so you know the next 200 years of the Jesus movement, the theme is growth
and spreading. Growth and spreading, growth and spreading. And so with that
growth and spreading, the New Testament is spreading too. Because everywhere
that a missionary or an apostle or people who go to start anew, Jesus community,
they’re going to take copies of the Scriptures with them of the Greek Old
Testament and of the forming books that we have in the New Testament as well.
And so big part of the copying history of the New Testament has to do the first
real urban centers of Christianity. And so there’s kind of four main ones in terms
of places where Jesus movement became large and then a large established
urban center. So, Alexandria Egypt, Antioch, and Syria and a number of different
cities in around Asia Minor and a lot of these cities are the cities that Paul wrote
to, like Ephesus and Colossae, so on, and then also of course, Rome. Think of how
this works here.
And so Jesus movement starts here and then very quickly it spreads so that the
main centers where there’s the most numbers of Christians copying the New
Testament and so on are in these places here.
Now just think about how this is going to go within a hundred or 200 years is if
you have a group of copyists who are working, copying New Testament
manuscripts here, copying them here, and then they’re going to extent to go
plant churches here in North Africa and so on and these people are getting sent
here and so on. This actually helps us in terms of reconstructing the history of the
development of the New Testament. Because let’s say group of scribes end up
here and you one copy that’s maybe the model for the others and there’s like a
mistake or an error or a difference in that copy, then that’s going to get spread
over around here to these manuscripts from this part of the world, where’s that
error not going to be where that difference is not going to be? In any of the
arrow, you know. But so they’re all going, again, you tried writing out a copy on
anything, there’s going to be some mistakes of spelling, word order, you might
skip a line or something. But the beauty of this organic spreading nature of the
Early Jesus movement is that there’s manuscripts being copied everywhere. And it
makes a horribly difficult puzzle you have to figure out. But also because it’s
complex, it means that there was never anybody, a group of old men in white
beard like doing this in a room by themselves, trying to trick everybody else. Like
that story doesn’t exist in history of the Bible. So this thing is public, it’s spreading
everywhere, and that helps us as well as creates complexity and problems. So
here’s our four like the animation, I kind of went through an animation phase in
PowerPoint where like animated everything. I don’t do that anymore, takes too
much time but I used to do it. So we’ve got our four main copy centers here in
these first centuries.
The early 300s are really important set of decades for the history of early
Christianity namely that there was a Roman emperor, one of the first Roman
Emperors to engage in widespread, systematic persecution and execution of
Christians and the suppression of Christians. What this means is that there’s
going to be unique differences or additions or whatever errors have gone on, on
one place won’t necessarily be in another. So let’s look at some examples of this.
So again, these are what I would call profound differences in the manuscripts. So
to you they may not be profound but these are, you know, about the most
significant as it gets. So go to First John Chapter 5 with me. This actually probably
the most significant one in the entire New Testament. If it bugs you, the other
ones won’t bug you because this one is the most significant.
Chapter 5 verse 5. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that
Jesus is the Son of God.
He is the one who came by the water and the blood—Jesus Christ. He did not
come by water only, but by water and blood. Now it is the Spirit who testifies,
because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: Spirit, and the
water, and the blood; and these three are in agreement.
There’s a lot of discussion among commentators; what is John talking about
here? Is it water used in baptism in His blood and image of the crucifixion and
then we testify to the truth of Jesus through baptism and through the word
supper, is that what he’s getting at here? So you know, you have to unpack the
symbolism but if you look in verse 8, you’re going to see a footnote somewhere
in verses 7 and 8. Do you see? Does anyone have a footnote there? So essentially
there’s a footnote, that there’s some late manuscripts of the Vulgate which is a
Latin translation, but it was based on some Greek manuscript somewhere, and
they insert all of what you have there in the footnote into the text. So let’s read
verse 7 and 8 with the addition.
For there are three that testify. The, go down to the footnote. There are three that
testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit: and these three are one.
And there are three that testify on the earth, backup, the Spirit, the Water, and
the Blood: and these three are in agreement.
What just happened right here? The Trinity. Yeah, it’s very nice. Those are very
nice. So he said, “So we’ve introduced the contrast, three in heaven. The Father,
the Word, the Spirit. Three on earth. The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood.” So this
addition happened in one set of manuscripts in Latin and ones connected to the
manuscript that come from the Asia Minor tradition, eventually made their way to
Rome. And so you can say, “Oh, here’s an addition, but it was clearly an addition
meant to help interpret theologically what’s going on here, but we can isolate it,
it’s in one text tradition, it’s not in the others. It’s not original. Shouldn’t be there.”
Discussion’s over, you know. So it may bug you that some scribe put that in
there. Again, so we could debate similar to Jeremiah, is this malicious tampering,
are we introducing an idea that’s not found anywhere else in the New Testament?
No, the Trinity is found in presupposed in lots of places in the New Testament.
But for one reason or another, somebody got creative and added this line, but we
can totally spot it. To me, this is an extremely profound difference. An example
from the Book of Acts. So this is a feature of the text history of the Book of Acts,
that the manuscripts connected to what’s called, the Western Manuscripts, which
again are Asia Minor, some Asia Minor manuscripts, the Book of Acts has, you
know, maybe a handful dozen, many dozen little additions, just like the one we’re
about to read.
So here’s how it reads in most of our English translations. This is from the chapter
where Steven, he is appointed as the spokesman for the Gospel, and there’s a
bunch of people arguing with Steven. But they could not stand up against his
wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men
to say, “We have heard Steven speak words of blasphemy against Moses, and
against God.” There are a handful of manuscripts in the Western, this Asia Minor
tradition, that have an extra line to the story of his. This is the way it reads in
those manuscripts. They couldn’t argue with Steven; they couldn’t stand up
against his wisdom or the spirit by whom he spoke because they were refuted by
him with boldness. Therefor, when they unable to confront the truth, they secretly
persuaded some people say, “We’ve heard Steven.” So what have we done with
the additional material here? We’ve just made Steven more awesome, right?
We’ve just made Steven, you know, more bold and we’ve made his opponents
more stupid or something.
So, you could say this is a minor narrative embellishment. Does the truth of the
story hanging on this? No. Does this unpack from the story of anything that
wasn’t already there? No, not really. It’s adding, we’re airbrushing the painting or
something here. I’d say we’re photoshopping these days, people airbrush and
photoshop in store. So you know, whatever the scribe thought that the thought
he had the prerogative to do that but good for us that he was in one place in one
time and we can spot his activity and recognize that it’s not a part of the original.
So essentially what’s going on here then is that in this time period, these first,
basically 200 years of the New Testament, it’s similar to that period we have for
the Hebrew Bible. It’s complicated, but that’s okay. We should expect it to be
complicated because there’s people involved. God bless the people who have
done hard work in the rest of this time period to sort out what was done during
this complex period. And that for me is the fascinating detective mystery of the
story of the New Testament. So we’re going to power through this. You guys
ready for action?
So here’s what happens in essentially 300 and here’s how I used to animate
PowerPoint here. Here we go, watch. There’s a guy named Diocletian. Okay, there
was a Roman Emperor named Diocletian who began systematically, actively
suppressing the Jesus movement and killing lots of Christians, burning churches,
and burning their copies of their New Testament. And so what essentially
happened is there were a large number of churches in Asia Minor that escaped or
that were not subject to these persecutions by Diocletian. So just a quote here to
spell this out.
Persecution of the Christians by Diocletian was characterized by the systematic
distraction of the church buildings, and any manuscripts that were found in them
were publicly burned. Church leaders were required to surrender for burning all
holy books in their possession. I mean, we were just sitting now reading the
stories of people who are in these kinds of situations. This is not a new thing in
the history of Christianity. The result then was a widespread scarcity of New
Testament manuscripts which became acute than when the persecution sees.
Does that make sense? They’re saying that once the persecution’s over,
Diocletian passes, new emperor, you know, embraces new policies. Then we need
to copy the New Testament like mad, right? And so when Christians could again
engage freely a missionary activity, there was a tremendous growth in the size
and number of new churches and so there followed certain demands for large
numbers of New Testament manuscripts in all the provinces. This growing need
could only be met by large copying houses.
And so any text used as the exemplar, and by that they mean the foundation text
that a bunch of copies were made off of. And such a copying center would
naturally be widely distributed and have a great influence. Does that make sense
what they’re saying here? So as it goes, it was a group of text that we can now
locate to the tradition of one copying center in Asia Minor. And this became the
form of the biblical text that got spread all over the world as Christianity and then
literally over the next 12 centuries, it spread west, right to Celtic Christianity and
the 700s when missionaries go to Ireland and so on, and spread throughout
Europe the conversion of the tribes and so on, Germanic tribes and so on. And
the copies of Bible being made into Latin everything, all comes from manuscripts
based on one group here.
So 1516, a guy names Erasmus. Have you heard of him before? It’s kind of an
important figure in pre-Luther. It’s a pre-reformation. He was a scholar and he
tried to compile the first scholarly edition of the New Testament and he had
access to a few hundred biblical manuscripts which seemed amazing at that time,
right? No one ever tried to do this before. But all—we now know all of the
manuscripts he found were basically getting lots of manuscripts from this one
chain of tradition here. So, he based his text entirely on these things here. This is
now called the majority text. To think, 1200 years this one tradition of text is
being copied and copied. How many copies are going to be existing today? The
majority. Which is why it’s called the majority text. So you can’t count numbers
when you’re doing New Testament text studies because the majority are going to
be these text right here, and then the majority because there were the only ones
that people had for a really long time. So here’s a picture of Erasmus’ edition and
got Latin over here, the Greek text over here, and a lot of crazy medieval graphic
The tradition goes forward. People begin to use Erasmus’ text as the scholarly
edition that all further additions should be based on. Just a few years later again,
a guy named William Tyndale who speaks English, and he has a passion that’s not
just priests and scholars should be able to read the Bible in Greek or in Latin, but
that everybody should be able to read the Bible in their own language. So what
does William Tyndale do? He does something that’s illegal. He translates the
Bible into English and his life is in endangered for it. And so he produced the first
English translation from the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that he had. So
here’s from the Gospel of John, SYR and then S, S are in classic German, the first
chapter. If you look at the beginning, that S, isn’t that great? In the beginning
was that word, and that word was with God, and God was that word. The same
was in the beginning with spelled with a Y, isn’t this great? There you go. So early
1500s English. So this English translation has had an enormous amount of
influence on English Translation still today. So how Tyndale phrased things into
English begin then when it influenced the next major English translation that
became the dominant English Bible for the last 400 years or so which is the King
James version. But can you see—again, what are all these based on in terms of
New Testament manuscripts? Just one manuscript tradition. And how widely read
is the King James Bible? Really, really, really widely read. Even still today. And so
here’s the page from the early edition of the King James. They attribute the letter
to the Hebrews here to Paul even though it doesn’t say that anywhere.
So here’s what it comes down to is that we’re talking about a well over 1,000-year
period of time that the New Testament is being passed on and translated now
but based off one manuscript tradition after the Diocletian persecution. So lo and
behold we enter a new age when the British Empire, when the sun never sets on
the British Empire, and so that’s essentially when modern archaeology took off. It
was modern British people going in to all these places that they have now
conquered and began to dig up ruins. That’s essentially the history of modern
archaeology. You have all these British scholars cruising around the world going
into ancient monasteries or ancient mosques or churches and so on and just
digging out old manuscripts. And so they’re traveling all over the ancient world,
and lo and behold what do they find?
Some of these guys are just really incredible. These are stories of great
biographies to read and they were definitely introverts so I’ll just read a couple.
This is a guy who found that manuscript I told the story at the monastery in Sinai,
Sinai Peninsula. Frederick Constantine von Tischendorf. He said, “I have become
impassioned to seek and utilize the most ancient witnesses to reconstruct the
purest form of the Greek scriptures. I have dedicated myself to this sacred task,
the struggle to regain the original form of the New Testament.” Can you imagine
what an exciting time that was, right? Another guy, Samuel Trigue (SP?), “I’ve
devoted myself to a lifetime of meticulous labors upon the text of the New
Testament as an act of worship undertaken in the full belief that it will be for the
service of God and His church.” Unbelievable people. They dedicated their whole
lives to this task. And here’s essentially like these animations. Essentially what
happens is that these guys start traveling the known world and just digging up
everything they can and they’re just discovering loads of manuscripts and many
of them are New Testament manuscripts. Now you can put two and two together
here. Can you see where this is going here?
So all of a sudden we have not only the majority text, we’re discovering text in
Egypt, text buried in ancient Catholic churches, and libraries in Rome, you know
what I mean? It’s just so exciting. I think it would be exciting. In old churches that
are in what we call Syria here today. And so essentially here’s the kinds of things
we start finding. So we have a traditional King James of the Lord’s prayer, yeah?
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the
kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
So how scandalized would you be, you’ve grown up saying this that there would
be discovered more ancient, more reliable manuscripts simply don’t have the
little bit at the end there? Now look at the bit at the end. What is that little bit at
the end? This is like Jeremiah chapter 10, it’s a little praise, it’s a little hymn of
praise at the end. Now here’s what this tells us here. This is actually interesting is
that very quickly we know from document from the early 120s or so called the
Didache, it’s the earliest form of catechism in the early church, what early
converts were taught. We’re told that the Lord’s prayer was basic. Every Christian
learns it, you memorize it, this is a part of your daily prayer life. It’s just the way it
went in the early Jesus movement. And you can imagine how in those first
century or so that the Lord’s prayer, you’re saying it every day, you say it every
gathering like your house church has a group here together and worship. You
can see someone would say, “You know, we need a more proper ending at the
beginning of the prayer. Not just deliver us. Let’s end it with a hymn.” And then
you can imagine a scribe who is raised saying this version of the Lord’s Prayer
and then when he comes, he becomes a scribe, the scribe of the Book of
Matthew. And he is copying down and he’s like, “Wait a minute. This isn’t the
right version of the Lord’s prayer. It needs the ending that I learned growing up
as a kid.” Then there you go, in it goes. But it’s not original. It’s in the text of
Matthew. So again, this isn’t malicious tampering, this isn’t somebody trying to
twist the Bible or something like this is an addition that comes to the Lord’s
Prayer and it arises out of the worship life of the church which is kind of precisely
what we would expect, wouldn’t it? But for some people, this is deeply
scandalous. Don’t mess with my King James. Why are these scholars taking out all
of these important stuff of the Bible? This is deeply controversial in these early
1800s and 1900s.
Here’s just a few pictures of some of these early manuscripts of the New
Testament. They’re just awesome. So this is the oldest piece of New Testament
that we’ve got. It’s a fragment from John Chapter 18 and by the handwriting, it’s
dated to the early decades of the second century. So we’re back in 40 years or
something here. It’s just outstanding. I don’t know, I get chill in my spine with this
kind, how awesome is this. Some are much better preserved. So this is a
collection of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And then can you see right here
there’s a break, and then a little heading, and then new things begin. So what
that says this past Colossaes to the Colossians. It’s the beginning of the next
letter, Philippians and Colossians. So notice this is different. This is an animal skin
is it? Yeah, this is papyri which is reed straw that is wet down and then flattened
So these earlier papyri and then there’s the next main set of manuscript witnesses
this is again, this is the one that was found in the monastery in Sinai.
So we have the entire New Testament represented in some of these early books,
codex forms of the New Testament. We have the majority of the New Testament
in these early papyri here. This was just an exciting time I think in the history of
the church. So here’s where we’re at today then is that a group of scholars led by
these two German scholars Erwan Nestle and Kurt Alan, they got together in the
1960s, they started to put together the state-of-the-art, here’s everything we
know in one place. And that is the form of the New Testament. It’s called the
Nestle Aland New Testament, and it’s now in the 27th edition. So they updated
and published a new edition based on new findings about every 5 to 10 years
and they’ve just been doing that since the 1960s.
So it’s very similar here, you can see the text, and then you see all those little
squiggles symbols that are highlighted there. Those are little footnotes directing
you down here and then this is like reading a phone book or something, you
know. It’s just like a complex code telling you the types of variants that are in the
manuscripts. And again this is sort of like, this is even more than a Hebrew Bible,
I’d say 99% are insignificant. The word that was left out. Greek spell things in
different word order. They don’t need word order like we do. So the words are in
a different order or something. And so most of it has virtually no significant effect
on translation, and so on. There’s some that do, like we saw earlier, but most
don’t. So that’s kind of where we are today.
Every English translation that you go to Barnes and Nobles and look at are based
off of this Greek text right here. So the reason why the translations are different is
different philosophies of translations not a different Bible underneath it,
something. Something like that. They’re all working off this basic text right here.
Great. This is a good time to bring out this handout that’s on the front here. How
many Hebrew Bibles are there that our English Translations are based off of?
There’s just one. Oh, I didn’t put it out there. But it’s this guy up here I showed
you a picture of it. It’s just one text. One Hebrew Bible that everybody’s working
out off. How many Greek New Testaments are there that all our translations come
off of? So the question is, is why all of the different English Translations? And that
is what this little thing is about right here. And so essentially. translations, the way
it works is a group of scholars get around, and they say, we think we need English
translation that just slavishly sticks to basically trying to mimic Greek and Hebrew
in English. It’s English like nobody speaks it. But that’s okay because that’s what
this translation is about. And so the most extreme end of that would be like
interlinear if you ever seen that words, literally you see the Hebrew and then the
English words underneath it, and it’s garbled English. It doesn’t make any sense
because Hebrew doesn’t have all the same word order as English.
But then going along down, you see things like NASB, that’s the New American
Standard, and New American Standard is English as it’s never been spoken
before. But it’s a very—its translation to stud—to do word studies. You want to
read very closely, you know. If you want to learn Greek or Hebrew, you read the
next best thing. The NASB is a good way to go. A couple down from there, you’ll
see the ESV, yeah? In terms of NASB and you see the next Bible, then the ESV. So
in terms on the spectrum the ESV places—I find it to be difficult English. What
they’re trying to do is map closely under the word order and consistency
translations from the Greek and the Hebrew. So for some people, they love that.
The mistake that people make is, formal equals more faithful to the text of the
Bible. That’s a mistake. That’s the philosophical choice driving the translation. So
on this end, you’ll see, instead of translating word for word, one English word for
every Greek word, some Greek and Hebrew words are more complex, and so we
need like a whole English phrase to really unpack and communicate what the
author was intending. So that’s called a dynamic approach. And so you’ll get
translations that I would say are the grateful reading on the bus, the grateful
reading whatever and at certain points. They’re not the most helpful for studying.
If you really want to dig in to study, get a study Bible and something like that. I
would say that that’s not really what these are designed for.
These are designed to help you read as if you’re reading the Bible in modern
English which is what most of us are trying to do. So most translations fall
somewhere on this spectrum. I try to put as many contemporary ones as I could.
But again, dynamic doesn’t mean less faithful. It does mean that there will be
interpretative choices made by the translators as they render in the English. But
there are also interpretative choices being made by these people too on the
formal end. So all translations are going to be in an interpretation of some kind.
So my two cents about translations is, there’s no such thing as a bad translation.
The best translation is the ones you actually read. And I encourage people to
read multiple translations over the years of your journey. I think it’s good to
change up every year or so the translation that you’re reading the Bible in
because new language just gets new ideas into your mind in different ways. All
translations are a form of interpretation because no one language is identical to
another. You have to make some choices. We have one Hebrew Bible, one Greek
Bible, and a million English versions of it, right. So what does it mean to say is, my
Bible is God’s word. So does my translation convey the meaning that the author
had in mind and that’s what I get from the translation then I’d say that, that is
God’s word, you know. And part of it too is that if you ever read the Bible very
long, sometimes things will strike you and the Holy Spirit’s doing stuff on you
that may or may not be related to the main point in the passage that you’re
reading, you know what I mean? There might be something else that strikes you
or something you’ve never thought of, you know. And so God’s word works in a
lot of ways over and above, it’s rooted in the wording and the meaning of the
words, but also over and above what the words are doing. And so I feel totally
confident saying the Bible is the word of God and this NIV—if by Word of God
we have in mind this whole thing that I’m talking about, not the golden tablets
view. And that’s usually what people think of when they hear the Word of God. A
term I have come to use more widely is, the Sacred Scriptures or the scriptures,
God is speaking through the scriptures. And I find that to be language that tends
to communicate a little better to folks, but okay.
So just to make sure we’re not talking about cannonball canons, the word canon
is actually Greek word spelled in English letters that means rule or measure or list.
So when we’re talking about the biblical canon, we’re talking about the
authoritative list of books that constitute God’s communication to the human
race. So you know, a light matter. But that’s what we’re talking about here. The
collection, canon, collection. The authoritative thing I think that’s okay, let me just
summarize what I’m trying to get at here is I think it’s very important to recognize
that if I’m a Christian, what I know about Jesus is mediated through the scripture,
but it’s important to recognize the Bible isn’t trying to draw attention to itself.
The Bible is trying to draw our attention to a person, right? Who exists right now
we believe and who lived and died and rose again. And so Jesus is super clear at
the end of Matthew that authority does not belong to the Bible and on itself. The
Bible belongs to Him, to Jesus. And so what this is means is that the Bible is one
of the ways that the authority of Jesus is working itself out in the world and what
is the authority of Jesus all about? It’s about starting a movement of His
followers, people who are becoming new kinds of humans, it’s about the
movement of the Gospel, it’s about the Kingdom of God, and it’s about the new
thing that’s happened in the resurrection that’s spreading throughout the human
race through the spirit and during the story of the gospel. That’s what Jesus is
doing with His authority. The authority of Jesus isn’t like to bash people over the
heads, right? The authority of Jesus is to spread the message of the healing,
transforming power of the gospel and of His resurrection. And so I think this is
important is that the authority of the Bible we hear that phrase and we think, “Oh
the biblical canon, it’s the list of books that tell me how to behave and have the
power to tell me how to behave.” That’s what we think of when we think when we
hear this word. And in my mind, that is not a biblical view of authority. A biblical
view of authority starts right here, and it’s that all authority is in Jesus and His
mission that he’s commissioned us towards. And so, if our view of the Bible
doesn’t help serve us in this mission, then I think we’ve gone astray from what
Jesus is trying to tell us to do, does that make sense? So the Bible is not trying to
point us to itself, it’s trying to point us to the person of Jesus. And so for me, this
has been a helpful way to think about all this issue of canon here.
That’s why I’m camping out on it is that the scriptures are telling us a story, right.
And I’ve done it right down the line here, tried to summarize the storyline of the
Bible. Here we go. And of all the moments in the story, this one for Christ
followers, this is primary, Jesus. Everything revolves around Him, everything is
about Him, about what He accomplished for us, about what He’s doing now in
the world through us. So Jesus.
Why do we read the Old Testament? Not because it’s easy or because I like it,
you know what I mean? I read the Old Testament because I was Jesus’ Bible and
that’s where He discovered who He was and that was the God He said He came
to embody and represent and so on. And so that’s why I read the Old Testament,
and that’s why I read the New Testament which is about Jesus. So think about
this then, scriptures are text that tell the story right here. The authority of the
Bible is in the events, is specifically in Jesus, and Jesus is the culmination of this
story right here. So scriptures, things that retell the story or unpack the meaning
of the story like Paul’s letters do and they’re text that guide the community in
living out the story. And in many ways, I think that’s what Paul’s letters, what
Hebrews, what James is trying to do. You heard the story leading up to Jesus, the
Old Testament. You now know the story of Jesus, Paul, and Peter, and James, and
John are guiding the early Jesus communities on how to rightly live out the story
of Jesus. How to live out the gospel. So we have all this. This is in the production
of the New Testament. What that leaves to question is once all these guys pass
from the scene, Jesus and the first generation of apostles, there were a lot more
text produced in the first century than just the ones that we have in the Bible.
And so then there’s discerning process, a sifting process. Which text that come
from this early period are the ones that rightly tell the story. Do you see why I
have in bold and underlined rightly? Because there could be a lot of text out
there that have misunderstood Jesus or that passed on a version of Jesus’
teaching that have distorted, that are not right, or ways of following Jesus that
are actually now out of sync with what Jesus would have actually wanted. And so
this is the process of discerning the canon right here.
Which of these writings are the ones that rightly protect and preserve the Gospel
in the story? Does that make sense? So all I’m trying to give you is cosmic map
here. That this is not again about a room of old men with white beards trying to
trick everybody here. This is a process the whole Church had to go through in
those first couple of hundred years after Jesus and the apostles passed from the
scene. Which text are going to be the ones that rightly guide?
So for the Hebrew Bible, I’ll say this right here, is that the Hebrew Bible has a
shape, a three-part shape to it that’s different from our English translations, and
that’s what you see at the bottom of page 6 there. You have some passages here.
This is will be a great cup of coffee one morning to read those passages, but
essentially the earliest form of the Hebrew Bible as we know it, it’s all the same
books that we have in our English Bibles, but it was arranged in a different order
and the biggest bang for the buck is that this is clearly the shape and the order
that Jesus Himself read the Hebrew Bible in. So in Luke chapter 24, He talked
about everything that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, which is the first
part of the collection of the Torah. The prophets and the Psalms and the, if you
look at the collection of what Jesus is talking about here is the Torah, the
prophets, and the third collection of—called the writings (?39:07) but what’s the
first book in the third collection? It’s the Book of Psalms. So Jesus is saying, the
entire Hebrew Bible was written in a way that’s pointing towards me.
So again, why are we reading the Hebrew Bible? Because it’s easy? Because it’s a
fun read? No, because Jesus believed the story that it’s telling was pointing
In the Catholic tradition, a group of books that are in Catholic Bibles that are not
in Protestant Bibles, most of us are probably aware of this in some form, and so
there you go, there’s a list of those extra books there. These are writings, Jewish
writings from the pre-Christian period and right around the period of Jesus. They
somewhat are about the same type of events and stories that are in the Old
But here’s the basic rundown, is that they were declared to be a part of the Bible,
so they were floating in and around the church but it was a Papal decision to
include them in the Christian Bible in 1546. And let’s see, were there any
significant debates going on in 1546? Well yeah, Luther was challenging some of
the teachings of the Catholic church and lo and behold, some of those teachings
were based off of passages in these books. And so this is fully a move of
reformation politics essentially for why these books are in Catholic Bibles today.
Again, that’s my view. You ask someone from Catholic tradition and they’ll have a
different view, namely that the decision of the Pope was God’s words. But that’s a
different view of authority that Protestants have.
The other piece is that neither Jesus or any of the apostles ever quote from these
books. They quote from the Hebrew Bible a lot. But they never quote from any of
these books or talk about them as if they are scripture. So there you go, that’s in
three minutes. That’s the canon of the Hebrew Bible. So for the new Testament,
there’s a few pieces.
First of all, when the early Jesus Movement is going, is there any New Testament
that’s being written? So what is the Bible of the first generation of Christ
followers? It’s what we call the Old Testament. And the stories, the quilt pieces,
whatever quilt pieces or letters of Paul that they might have.
And so here’s what’s super interesting though about the New Testament. So we
have a passage like this in Second Peter. This is—would be mind boggling to
anybody when Peter wrote this. He’s writing to a large group of people and he
says: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation just as our dear
brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.” Oh great, he’s
talking about Paul. He writes in the same way in all of his letters. So Peter is
aware of a collection of Paul’s letters that’s floating around. Very early. Very early.
Speaking of them—in them, of these matters. His letters contain some things that
are hard to understand. And if you’ve never tried to read Paul, you would say
Amen to that. Paul is a very difficult read in some places. And he says those
things that are hard to understand, ignorant, and unstable people distort just as
they distort the other scriptures to their own ruin, to their own destruction. So in
other words, Paul—so he’s making a different point about people distorting what
Paul is saying. But notice what he’s done here in this passage. What other
scriptures are we talking about here? We’re talking about the Old Testament right
here, the other scriptures. Whose writings has he put alongside the Hebrew
scriptures? Paul’s letters. Do you see that right there? It’s right there. This is in the
New Testament itself.
So the New Testament is aware that what’s happened in Jesus, and the
movement of Jesus, and the closest circle of followers around Jesus, the apostles,
that what they’re doing is a new work of God that continues the story of the Old
Testament, and therefor Paul and Peter, their writings—I mean this will be
flabbergasting to you know… when Peter’s writing this. But then, there you go. I
mean it’s just right there. And this is right in the smack of the first century.
And so here’s essentially what happens is that, as lots of books are out there,
there’s lots of letters, remember Paul wrote to the Laodiceans and these—there
are discussions the early Church Fathers about what types of books are going
viral, what types of books are raising to the top in the worship and the spreading
of the Jesus movement.
And the first one of course is that it’s connected to the original circle around
Jesus of twelve. Then Paul who was not one of the twelve, and that was a whole
matter of dispute actually if you read Paul’s letters. But connection right to those
Second one is books that were widespread continuously working here. They went
viral so to speak. And how did they go viral? Missionaries, planting new churches,
getting copied, and so on. Books that are being read and reread and reread the
most. So this is actually pretty important. I’ll just read to you quotes here so you’ll
not just be getting my opinion. These are reputable New Testaments scholars. So
Bruce Metzger. He says, “What is really remarkable is that though the fringes of
the New Testament canon remain unsettled until the 4th century,” well talk about
that in a second, “a high degree of unanimity concerning the basic core of the
New Testament, Gospels Acts, Paul, John, Peter, was attained very early among
that diverse and scattered churches not only in the Mediterranean, over an area
extending from Western Europe to East Asia.”
How easy is it to get Christians to agree on very many things today? You know
what I’m saying? So how amazing is it that’s spontaneously across not just
Mediterranean but in Western Europe and East Asia the same books are rising to
the top among different churches. They were the most important. Do you see
what he’s saying here? This is very significant what was happening in those early
centuries. So are they rising to the top in terms of usage? And this is very organic
to come back to the phrase, this is very organic, and messy, and spirit-led, and
you know, if you learned anything about the Spirit in the New Testament, it’s that
things are messy when the Spirit gets involved and there you go.
The last criteria is talked about the rule of faith and it’s essentially this, do these
books represent an aberration from the basic core message of the gospel? Is
there anything in this book that just goes totally different direction? And were
those books out there? Totally. Totally. In fact, those are the books that tend to
make all of the headlines here. So these, you know, this is Dan Brown, The Da
Vinci Code, Lost Gospels and so on. There’s a reason why they were lost. Is
because they were produced by one group down in Egypt that went down a very
different road than the core gospel that most of the universal church embraced
and so they died out, and they were lost in the sands of Egypt for 1800 years, you
know. So there’s a reason why they were lost. They were never in the Bible in the
first place. And so this is the misnomer that often gets out there, why did some
people take the books out of the Bible? Maybe you heard this before, and then
it’s conspiracy theory, you know, old men and white beards taking books out of
the Bible that didn’t promote their agenda and so on. That’s total nonsense. It’s
not how it went at all. These were lost because no one read them anymore
because they were an aberration.
And so what we have in the New Testament represents books that conformed
and were statements of the basic rule of faith, rule of the gospel. So here’s the
bottom line, we’ll end with this and then a couple of quotes. There was never any
official council that decided what was in the New Testament. If there’s anything
that you remember, it’s that’s the most important thing. It’s to know one place
that anybody sits down and say, “Here’s what’s in and here’s what’s out.” The
canon was an organic growth out of the church spreading throughout the
ancient world and books being copied and recopied and certain ones over those
early centuries rose to the top. And so there was a council in the last 300s that
made in the declaration of the books that we have in the New Testament today,
the ones that we have. But it’s very clear that they’re not making anything up.
What they’re doing is they’re recognizing what was already being practiced in all
the churches. Just a couple quotations so you know I’m not making this up.
The councils of the church played little part in deciding what was in the canon of
scripture. When councils did speak to the subject, their voice was a ratification of
what had already become the common practice of the churches. Does that make
sense what he’s saying here? This guys in particular, he is, again, he does not
have a theological axe to grind, he’s not an evangelical scholar, he’s a historian
just talking about what we know about these councils.
So in many ways, we can just kind of conclude with this, it’s the letters that we
have in the New Testament, organically rose to the top as the letters that
preserve the core statement about the gospel of those closest to Jesus in the first
century. And the process was messy. But the product makes all the sense in the
world. When you read the New Testament, there’s lots of differences but they’re
all basically doing the same thing. You know, James has his way of putting things.
Paul has his, John the Revelation, writers have some really strange way of putting
things. But they all are basically cohere around the death and resurrection of
Jesus in the gospel and so on. So this was super helpful to me. No men in white
beards in the secret room. That’s basically what this amounts to. And that the
Bible didn’t drop out of heaven. The Bible arose out of the mission of God at
work in the world, and out of the church spreading, and growing, and spreading,
and so the Bible has very close relationship to the church. It didn’t drop down out
of heaven. It actually arose out of the history of God’s people. And so its
messiness in my mind is beautiful because it speaks to what God’s doing in the
world which is going to be messy because it involves us.
Alright. There it was you guys. So many questions left unanswered. But there’s
value in drinking from a firehose and just getting the big picture, the overview of
thousands of years of history in the formation of the Bible. I hope there’s some
new angles, some new ways of thinking about the history of making of the Bible
that you haven’t thought about before. Why this is still an active area of research
for me personally, probably will be until the day I die, and I’m quite happy about
that because it’s so interesting. So we’re going to be talking about these issues
more in future episodes of The Strange Bible Podcast. But for now onward and
upward, thanks for listening you guys.
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